Lars von Trier uses the tagline, "A beautiful movie about the end of the world" to describe his newest film, "Melancholia." And "Melancholia" really is about the end of the world, in that the world ends -- but for much of the film, what we see is simply our own, ordinary world looking dismally back at us.
In other words, you wouldn't necessarily think of "Melancholia" as science fiction movie, despite the fact that the movie's premise involves a strange planet emerging from behind the sun to destroy the earth. In part, that's due to the fact that von Trier is von Trier -- an art film director -- rather than a commercial director. "Melancholia" has close to nothing in common with movies like "Battle: Los Angeles" and "2012."
But "Melancholia" is just one movie in a long line of arthouse films to use science fictional devices as convenient narrative machines that force characters to uncomfortable realizations -- about themselves, about each other, and about the societies they live in. In the past few years, we've seen more and more of these films -- this year alone, "Melancholia" joins films like Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In," Abel Ferrara's "4:44 Last Day on Earth" and Mike Cahill's "Another Earth."
While the intensity of the science-fiction elements in these films vary (many are near-replicas of our universe, others more elaborately falsified), these are movies that care most of all about the implications of their inventions.
The question isn't so much whether the humans can beat the invading aliens with their missiles, but what it will do to us, either way it works out.
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